Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) FAQ
I frequently get asked, “Is TravelMerry/Kiss&Fly/Tripsta/etc. reliable?” so it seemed prudent to give a more in-depth explanation of how travel booking sites operate and how you should think about them.
Most of us are familiar with the larger Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) like Orbitz, Expedia, and Priceline. OTAs are great because they let you search across a ton of different airlines at once, build multi-airline itineraries, and many times offer lower prices than you can get directly from the airlines.
In addition to the major OTAs, nowadays there are also a proliferation of newer, smaller OTAs. These include:
Because only the most obsessive travelers have heard of these OTAs, many people are hesitant to purchase a flight from them. Understandable!
Rather than tell you whether or not you should book through them, I thought I’d answer the most common questions about how these OTAs operate and let you decide whether or not you’re comfortable.
Why should I consider buying from a smaller OTA?
They frequently offer the best price on any given trip. Sometimes it’s a small discount of $20, other times it’s larger drop of $150. On rare occasions the price difference between smaller OTAs and larger OTAs/airlines can get as high as $500 or more.
How can smaller OTAs offer better prices?
There’s a number of possible reasons. Many of them cut costs by outsourcing customer support to low-wage countries. Some have high fees to change or cancel a ticket. Most don’t allow customers to cancel purchases penalty-free within 24 hours (as many of the larger OTAs do). Some even sell some tickets at a loss in an attempt to increase their market share.
Am I going to get scammed?
If you’re worried that a smaller OTA will take your money and not give you a ticket, don’t be. The worst you can expect is that, on occasion, you purchased a fare that no longer existed when you bought it. If that happens, they will reach out to you (almost always within 48 hours or less) to tell you your ticket can’t be sold at that price. At that point, you’re given the option to either purchase at a higher price or have the entire transaction voided and your money refunded.
How can they let me “buy” a fare that doesn’t exist?
The answer is slightly complicated, but I’ll try to explain without getting too deep into boring minutiae of how fares are calculated and sold.
When you book directly on an airline’s website, your ticket typically gets issued almost immediately. That’s because the airline is both the seller and provider of the ticket, so it’s rare that their system allows them to sell something they don’t actually have in stock.
With OTAs, especially smaller ones, there’s a delay between when you purchase the ticket and when you’re issued the ticket. That’s because, unlike the airlines, most OTAs don’t actually have the tickets they sell. Instead, the OTA is the middle man — much like a stockbroker — connecting customers with airlines. So when you click to buy a roundtrip Delta flight from New York to London for $400, what happens is the OTA charges your credit card $400, then turns around and checks with Delta (or whatever airline) to make sure that ticket can still be sold at that price. This process can take anywhere from a few minutes to 48 hours; each OTA is different and there are a ton of variables impacting transaction time.
The vast majority of the time, Delta gives the OTA a thumbs up and you will be issued your ticket to London for the $400 price tag. On rare occasion, Delta tells the OTA it cannot sell the seat at that price, whether because it was a mistake price to begin with or because Delta just sold out the last of the cheap $400 seats. If that happens, then the OTA comes back to you and says sorry, offering to sell you the seats at a higher price (say, $800) or refund the purchase altogether.
This delay between purchasing and ticketing is why I recommend people wait a few days or a week before making any non-refundable travel plans. But once you’ve got an e-ticket number with the airline, you should be all set.
What about [random smaller OTA’s] terrible internet reviews?
I’m never sure how much stock to put in poor internet reviews. On the one hand, they’re worth reading because other people’s experiences can be instructive. On the other hand, the nature of internet reviews tends to skew towards negative experiences. Not many people whose trip went smoothly are motivated to go back and write a review.
The other reason I think it’s worth taking a nuanced look at negative reviews is that they tend to come from folks who didn’t understand how smaller OTAs operate. They may have been unaware of the higher change/cancellation fees, outsourced customer service representatives, or delay between purchasing and ticketing. Obviously those aspects of smaller OTAs aren’t ideal, but as long as you’re aware of how smaller OTAs work, they can be a fantastic way to save money on airfare.
What’s the deal when a Momondo search doesn’t specify which airline a flight is on, just saying “Major US carrier” instead?
Only a few of the OTAs like PaylessFlights or GoTravel123 do that. It looks like this:
I’m not 100% sure why they keep the airline anonymous, but the good news is it’s nothing bad and easy to circumvent. Just look at the other results with the same take-off and landing times and you’ll quickly deduce which airline it’s on.
Though the $468 result anonymizes the airlines, the results below show which carriers the flights are on. (Note: the actual flight is likely operated by American Airlines here, which partners with Iberia and British Airways.)